Building Strong Communities through Food: Our Experience Working Alongside Our Food Systems Partners

In celebration of TNC’s 10th anniversary on May 20th, 2020, we are creating a series of posts that reflect our practice and mission. 

At TNC we have a long history of working with community-based organizations that are committed to strengthening their local food systems. This work is incredibly important to us and we feel grateful for the opportunity to play a role in supporting this work. We have met passionate people, dived deeper into our understanding of the food system, and collaboratively designed evaluations that have produced valuable learnings that our partners have acted on to strengthen their approach to meeting the needs of their communities. 

As we’ve worked alongside our clients, there are a few things that have really stood out to us about their work. We’d like to share what we have learned here. 

Food builds a sense of community.

While working on a recent evaluation of the Circles program in Guelph and Wellington County, a participant shared something during an interview that has stuck with me:

“If you’re a funder, it’s like ‘oh, we’re going to pay and have people come and sit and have dinner together?’ But really yes, that’s the special thing. You bring all these people together and these amazing friendships form, and support in the community builds”

The Circles program is focused on poverty reduction, and each meeting always started with a dinner prepared by the community, where participants gathered, shared stories, built trust, and developed friendships. While food security was not a direct focus of the program, it clearly illustrates how important food is in bringing people together. Since working with Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), we have learned even more about the sense of community that can be built through the power of food. 

In 2018, CFCC began piloting the Market Greens program. The pilot program focused on offering fruit and vegetable incentives that were redeemable at two markets in Ontario. We learned that families were eating more fruits and vegetables because of the program, but also that by visiting the markets their sense of belonging to their community also increased. They described the atmosphere at the markets as warm and welcoming, with respectful and helpful staff. There were fun activities offered, and opportunities to socialize with other members of the community, and connect with friends, new and old. As CFCC says “good food is just the beginning”. 

Food systems work requires a disruption of the status quo.

Over the past few years, at a personal level, we have been inspired by our clients to make changes in our own lives. We’ve started growing our own fruits and vegetables, incorporating more healthy food into our diets, supporting local farmers, and making donations to organizations dedicated to making positive change within the food system. However, the projects we have supported have also caused us to pause and reflect on our own privilege that has allowed us to engage in these actions. Many members of our communities do not have access to healthy food because of the cost, limited time, and the availability of healthy food at the neighbourhood level. Racialized and low-income groups are disproportionately affected by these factors.

Given these types of challenges, United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) is seeking to alter the status quo of the food system in Mississauga by changing its form and function. In partnership with the General Mills Foundation and Greater Twin Cities United Way, UWGT is piloting the Community Food Systems Grant Program intended to strengthen Mississauga’s food system. This two-year grant stream goes beyond the traditional hunger relief model by providing financial investments to six innovative, community-based initiatives, providing capacity building supports, and bringing together food system stakeholders. Through this work UWGT will catalyze strategic development to promote greater access to food that meets the needs of the community. 

Through our partnership, we are evaluating this innovative grant stream to understand the impact that it is having in the community, focused at understanding the benefits that this new way of working is having at multiple levels. We will look at changes at the micro-level, or those related to increasing access to food that meets the nutritional, cultural and economic needs of residents living with low income; the mezzo level or those focused on enabling grantees to work in a collaborative way with residents, organizations and other key stakeholders in the food system; and at the macro-level by examining changes related to food policy, research and/or public education.  Together we will generate learnings that we hope can be applied to strengthening Mississauga’s food system, and we are excited to be a part of this change process. 

Evaluation can play a key role in building organizational capacity to strengthen the food system. 

One (among the many!) things we appreciate about our partners is that they incorporate a strong focus on learning into their work. They engage in reflective practice and have made changes and improvements to their programming based on evaluation findings that we have collaboratively generated. 

Locally, we have worked with the SEED, Everdale Farm, the County of Wellington-Ontario Works, Lutherwood Employment Services, and 2nd Chance Employment Counselling to evaluate the Good Food Work Experience. This program provides experiential learning and employment opportunities within the food system to youth in Guelph and Wellington County who have faced barriers to employment or education. Youth have had the opportunity to work at community food markets, in the kitchen, at a warehouse where good food is distributed to the community, and at Everdale Farm and Guelph Youth Farm. Youth have also sat down with us and provided extensive feedback about their experiences which we have incorporated into our evaluation.  One youth shared the following reflection about their experience working in the local food system:

“Being at the garden and then the farm and then doing all the hard work, and then coming home after the garden-you know, we got sent home with a bag of lettuce we harvested and it was just-it was like, I did that. That’s from my work. It was just such an amazing feeling. And knowing that that was going to go to people who needed it and feed them and put food on their table. It was such a good feeling”.

Youth also had ideas about how to change or improve the program, and so have members of the partnership. Reflecting on evaluation findings and recommendations, the partnership has made substantial changes to the program to strengthen their approach to providing positive experiences to youth, while also strengthening the food system. 

Our commitment to learning and capacity building in the food system.

At TNC, we are committed to supporting our food system partners by building their capacity to do good work, but we are also committed to learning more ourselves. With every project we partner on, we learn something new. We are able to carry each bit of new knowledge forward, apply it to our own work, and share what we are learning throughout our network. Our ability to do this is because of our inspiring partners, and we look forward to learning more over the coming years!

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